"A Prisoner’s Paradise?"

Link to
David J. Carter; used with permission

Here is part 3 in our series of recollections by Canadian Lt. Leo L. Hamson, regarding his time as a guard at the Wainwright POW camp.

(Update: The full set of Recollections is back online, with photos.)

A Prisoner’s Paradise?

The next morning was my first day on the job, and I was told to check all the sentries at the gates and in the guard towers. The towers were quite a climb. I was astounded to see scores of POWs streaming out the open gate of the POW compound carrying skis over their shoulders. NOW what was going on? The tower guard on duty was observing this calmly without a word. I scrambled down from the tower and hurried to the gate and the small building beside it through which the ski-laden POWs were trooping. I saw that each one was signing a form as he passed through. I picked one up and read it. It was printed in both English and German. I wish now that I had kept one.

To the best of my recollection it said something to the effect… “I declare on my honour as a German Officer that I will not attempt to escape while outside the POW compound on this parole, that I will stay within the prescribed area, that I will not approach any civilians, that I will not go near the railroad tracks, and that I will return and report in to the gate not later than 4.00 o’clock. I acknowledge that any violation of this parole may result not only in the prescribed punishment for me but cancellation of this privilege for all German officers in this camp indefinitely.”

Thereafter I became accustomed to watching them with my binoculars from the towers as they enjoyed themselves on the gentle slopes with skis supplied by, I believe, the Y.M.C.A., Red Cross, and other charitable organizations. Was this a prison camp or a resort? I often observed them stopping to look at their watches, wondering if they had time for one more slide down the slope before time was up. We had warned them that the gate would be closed at the appointed time, and anyone locked out would be declared an escapee in very serious trouble and in danger of being shot. The siren would then sound to alert the whole camp and army base. For those not involved in skiing, there were escorted exercise walks in large groups outside the wire.

Not once was this parole ever violated deliberately. In the curious irony governing prisoner-of-war camps and the Geneva Convention, the parole ended as soon as they were back inside the stockade. Then they were legally and honourably entitled to use all their wits, guile, and resources to attempt escape, and in every way give their captors as much trouble as possible. Some considered it their duty, as they were still soldiers at war with their enemies. They could be shot while fleeing, but not after they had surrendered. Thirty days solitary confinement was the usual punishment for escape attempts.

These were the rules of the game for both sides in World War II for signatories to the Geneva Convention. Compliance was monitored by a neutral “Protecting Power”, usually Switzerland, and reports were made to the respective governments of the belligerents. Generally, the rules were adhered to with correctness by both sides, but there were a number of tragic and brutal lapses involving mass murder of helpless Allied prisoners, including Canadians in Normandy, by the Nazi S.S. and the Gestapo.

As is usual with crimes of the winning side, much less is known of the hundreds of thousands[1] of German prisoners left to perish in an open field surrounded by barbed wire without shelter, food, or water after the final German surrender on May 8, 1945. It is alleged that this apparent war crime was carried out on the orders of the Allied Commander-in-Chief, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Copyright 2004 by Leo Hamson; used with permission

[1] This allegation was made prominent in a book published in 1989, and refuted by a panel of historians in 1990 (published as a book in 1992). From a subsequent article: "There was never any serious disagreement that the German POWs were treated badly by the U.S. Army and suffered egregiously in these camps in the first weeks after the end of the war. ... But there was NO AMERICAN POLICY to starve them to death as Bacque asserts and NO COVER UP either after the war."

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